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Success That Doesn’t Crush Your Soul

In the summer of 2019, I began to notice a concerning trend among my coaching clients—high-ranking executives, successful entrepreneurs, physician leaders, and elite athletes. Whereas I used to spend most of my time with them discussing high-performance habits and routines, over the past few years I’d been hearing something else. “I’m dying for a break,” said my client Tim, the chief physician of adult and family medicine at a large health care system. “But even when I try to take a single weekend off, I can’t seem to go more than a few hours without opening my work email. Logically I know I don’t have to—and I don’t really want to—but I feel compelled to check. To be honest, I become restless and insecure if I don’t.”

Other clients experience angst when they don’t have the proverbial “next thing” lined up. And even when they do, they worry about falling short. They perceive a deep-seated need to always be pushing toward something, lest they feel a widening gap, a sense of emptiness in their lives. “I thought that when I finally secured funding and launched this business I’d be content,” said Samantha, an entrepreneur at a fast-growing technology company. “But I was wrong. And I’m a bit worried that if this isn’t enough, I’m not sure what will be.”

Some of my clients also report feeling scattered, if not physically then mentally—spending more time than they’d like looking back, planning ahead, second-guessing their decisions, or getting caught up in what-if scenarios. “I’ve long felt the pull of distraction and I’ve long had a tendency to overthink things,” explained Ben, the CEO of a large software company. “Yet it feels intensified now. Like hyper-distraction. It’s harder than ever to be present. I can deal with it; but I don’t like it.”

Most of these individuals—including Tim, Samantha, and Ben—have been go-getters for as long as they can remember. They are determined and goal-driven, and they care deeply about their work and personal lives. They are no strangers to adversity. The athletes have faced awful injuries. The minority executives have faced bias and discrimination. The entrepreneurs have stared down arduous hours. Everyone has dealt with significant stress, especially the physicians, who are confronted with life-and-death situations on a regular basis. And yet, despite overcoming these obstacles, all of my clients—individuals whom I’ve come to admire greatly—continue to struggle mightily.

It’s not just my coaching clients. These themes have also been prominent in my research and writing, which has focused on performance, well-being, and general life satisfaction. Many of the people I’ve gotten to know through this work—top athletes, intellectuals, and creatives—have shared similar discontent. By conventional standards, they are highly successful. But deep down, they, too, often sense that something is not quite right, that something is missing. Interestingly, many of these people tell me that when they aren’t wound up they can actually feel quite low. It’s not that they are clinically depressed; it’s just that they are often bothered by a lingering sense of dissatisfaction. As one world-class athlete reflected to me, “If I stop looking ahead, I start feeling the post-competition blues, even if I won the dang competition! It’d be nice to have a little more, and deeper, peace.”

Heroic Individualism

Make no mistake, all of these individuals mentioned above experience moments of happiness and joy, but the moments are just that: moments—more fleeting than they would like. Too often, they feel like they are being pushed and pulled around by the whims of life, constantly bouncing from one thing to the next, sacrificing autonomy and losing control. They tell themselves (and me) how much they want to turn it off—all of the news and busyness and email and social media notifications and thinking about what’s next. And yet when they do, they feel unsettled and restless, fluctuating between aimlessness and angst. They know that always being on isn’t the answer, but they never feel quite right when they are off. Many men describe it as a cumbersome need to be bulletproof, invincible. Many women report feeling like they must be everything always, continually falling short of impossible expectations. I’ve come to call this heroic individualism: an ongoing game of one-upmanship, against both self and others, paired with the limiting belief that measurable achievement is the only arbiter of success. Even if you do a good job hiding it on the outside, with heroic individualism you chronically feel like you never quite reach the finish line that is lasting fulfillment.

Heroic individualism is not isolated to my coaching, research, or writing. Its woes are a common topic of conversation in my social circle, and those of my younger cousins and older colleagues. Regardless of age, race, gender, geography, or line of work, feeling like you are never enough seems to be a significant part of life. This is not exactly new. From the beginning of recorded history, humans have longed to feel like they are solid and whole, even though life is always changing. But the feeling has intensified. Heroic individualism is in the water, perpetuated by a modern culture that relentlessly says you need to be better, feel better, think more positively, have more, and “optimize” your life—only to offer shallow and superficial solutions that, at best, leave you wanting.

If some of this sounds familiar, you are not alone. The details may be different than the examples I’ve given. Perhaps you dislike your job or have faced acute hardship. Maybe you are fresh out of college or twenty years into your career. Perhaps you are approaching retirement, or even already there. But heroic individualism and its most prevalent symptoms—restlessness, feeling rushed, low-level angst, scatteredness, exhaustion, burnout, periods of emptiness, a compulsion to keep chasing the next thing, and recurrent longing—all of which are supported by mounting data, describe what so many people report feeling these days. There are parts of it that describe me, too.

The Dangers of Relentless Optimization

Though the following conditions do not exist in a vacuum, many appear to be related to heroic individualism, if not a direct by-product of it. The groundbreaking sociologist Émile Durkheim noted that “Overweening ambition always exceeds the results obtained, great as they may be, since there is no wanting to pause here. Nothing gives satisfaction and all this agitation is uninterruptedly maintained without appeasement. . . . How could [mental health] not be weakened under such conditions?”

Rates of clinical anxiety and depression are higher than ever, with estimates showing more than one in five people are suffering at any given time. Addictions to harmful substances are at peak levels in modern history, as evidenced by increasing rates of alcoholism and the opioid epidemic. There has been a tragic rise in what researchers call deaths of despair, or fatalities caused by drugs, alcohol, or suicide. In 2017, the most recent year for which we have data as of this writing, more than 150,000 Americans experienced deaths of despair. That is the highest this number has ever been, and nearly twice as high as it was in 1999.

According to the latest research in cognitive science, psychology, organizational behavior, medicine, and sociology, large swaths of people are struggling with subclinical feelings of dissatisfaction, too. Research from Gallup, a large polling organization, shows that overall well-being and life satisfaction in the United States are down nearly 10 percent since 2008. The data “suggests a trend that not all is well with people in the United States,” summarizes The American Journal of Managed Care.  The reasons for this are manifold. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer people were engaging in traditional community gathering places than at any point in recent history. Political tribalism is rising. At the same time, experts believe that loneliness and social isolation have reached epidemic proportions. In 2019, the World Health Organization classified burnout as a medical condition, defining it as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Insomnia is more common than ever, as is chronic pain. When you put all of this together, it seems safe to say that people’s underlying feelings of not being or having enough are increasingly surfacing. The irony is that so many of the people experiencing these afflictions are productive and successful, at least by conventional standards. But surely this isn’t the kind of success they are after.

Signs You May Be Suffering from Heroic Individualism

These feelings can manifest in different ways, but the concerns I have heard most frequently include the following:

  • Low-level anxiety and a sensation of always being rushed or in a hurry—if not physically, then mentally.
  • A sense that your life is swirling with frenetic energy, as if you’re being pushed and pulled from one thing to the next.
  • A recurring intuition that something isn’t quite right, but you’re unsure what that something is, let alone what to do about it.
  • Not always wanting to be on, but struggling to turn it off and not feeling good when you do.
  • Feeling way too busy, but also restless when you have open time and space.
  • Easily distractible and unable to focus, struggling to sit in silence without reaching for your phone.
  • Wanting to do better, be better, and feel better, but having no idea where to start.
  • Utterly overwhelmed by the information, products, and competing claims on what leads to well-being, self-improvement, and performance.
  • Feeling lonely or empty inside.
  • Struggling to be content.
  • Successful by conventional standards, yet feeling like you’re never enough.

This cluster of characteristics represents a common mode of being in today’s world. It may even be the prevailing one. But as you’ll see in the coming pages, it doesn’t have to be.

Enter Groundedness, a Better Way

All of this was on my mind during a hike with my close friend Mario. Each of us was going through our own respective rough patch, feeling more unsettled than we’d like. It was a crisp and windy day with a light gray sky. The upper branches of the massive redwood trees in a California regional park were blowing violently, but hundreds of feet below, the trees weren’t moving at all. Their trunks were rock solid, held to the ground by a network of strong and interconnected roots. And that’s when the lightbulb went off. I remember looking at Mario and saying, That’s it. This is what we’re missing. This is what we need to be developing. We need to stop spending so much time worrying about our metaphorical over-story, our high-hanging branches, and instead focus on nourishing our deep and internal roots, the stuff that no one sees, the stuff that keeps us grounded throughout all kinds of weather. The foundation. The principles and practices that we often overlook, that get crowded out in a too-busy life focused on the relentless and all-too-often single-minded pursuit of the next thing, whatever that thing may be.

At that moment I realized what I was longing for, what Mario was longing for, what my coaching clients and the elite performers I write about are longing for, and what I’m pretty sure everyone is longing for: to feel grounded—and to experience a deeper and more fulfilling kind of success as a result.

Groundedness is unwavering internal strength and self-confidence that sustains you through ups and downs. It is a deep reservoir of integrity and fortitude, of wholeness, out of which lasting performance, well-being, and fulfillment emerge. Yet here’s the common trap: when you become too focused on productivity, optimization, growth, and the latest bright and shiny objects, you neglect your ground. Eventually, you end up suffering. Conversely, and something that this book will unpack in great detail, when you prioritize groundedness, you do not neglect passion, performance, and productivity. Nor does groundedness eliminate all forms of ambition. Rather, it situates and stabilizes these qualities, so that your striving and ambition become less frenetic and more focused, sustainable, and fulfilling; less about achieving something out in front of you and more about living in alignment with your innermost values, pursuing your interests, and expressing your authentic self in the here and now, and in a manner you can be proud of. When you are grounded there is no need to look up or down. You are where you are, and you hold true strength and power from that position. The success you experience becomes more enduring and robust. It is only once you are grounded that you can truly soar, at least in a sustainable manner.

What, then, would it look like if instead of always pushing for conventional success, you focused on cultivating groundedness? What if the answer is less about excitement for the future and more about leaning into the present? What if you stopped trying so damn hard to be great all the time, stopped focusing on external results, and instead focused on laying down a solid foundation—a kind of groundedness that is not an outcome or a onetime event, but a way of being? A groundedness out of which peak performance and well-being and fulfillment can emerge and prevail for a lifetime? How would one develop this kind of powerful groundedness that is not so susceptible to the changing weather patterns of our lives? Might there be a way to be more at ease and content, more solid and whole, and still perform to the utmost of your potential?  To answer these questions, I looked to scientific research, ancient wisdom, and modern practice.

What Scientific Research Has to Say

Studies show that happiness is a function of reality meeting expectations. In other words, the key to being happy isn’t to always want and strive for more. Rather, happiness is found in the present moment, in creating a meaningful life and being fully engaged in it, right here and right now. What’s more is that we’re all affected by what behavioral scientists call hedonic adaptation, or the “set-point” theory of happiness: when we acquire or achieve something new, our happiness, well-being, and satisfaction rise, but only for a few months before returning to their prior levels. This is precisely why it is so hard, if not impossible, to outwardly achieve your way out of heroic individualism.

Speaking about the common struggle to find enduring happiness and well-being, Harvard psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar, who coined the term “arrival fallacy,” says, “We live under the illusion—well, the false hope—that once we make it, then we’ll be happy.” But when we do make it, when we finally “arrive,” he says, we may feel a temporary blip of happiness, but that feeling doesn’t last. And this is to say nothing of all the times we don’t make it, when we suffer the inevitable setbacks that life brings. Ben-Shahar says that if the cycle of seeking happiness outside ourselves and failing to find it repeats enough, eventually we lose hope. But this doesn’t have to be the case. As this book will show, there is a way to change your set point—to permanently increase your happiness, well-being, satisfaction, and performance—that has nothing to do with focusing on external achievement or chasing status. Rather, it has to do with focusing on groundedness.

In clinical psychology, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) are three of the most effective methods to improve anxiety, mood, and self-confidence. Common to all of these therapies is the belief that happiness, stability, and equanimity emerge from being grounded. These therapies are generally used only for recovery from serious mental health issues and addiction, but that’s unfortunate. As you’ll learn in the chapters ahead, their approaches and the practices they teach can be enormously beneficial for everyone, from everyday people to world-class performers.

Meanwhile, the emerging field of performance science is revealing that any kind of lasting success requires a solid base of health, well-being, and general life satisfaction. Without this foundation, someone can perform well for a short period of time, but they inevitably break down and burn out, and usually after only a few years at most. A common attribute in high performers who struggle with injury and illness—both physical and emotional—is that they neglect groundedness in favor of always pushing forward. Individuals who prioritize taking care of their ground, however, tend to have long, fulfilling, and successful careers. This theme is apparent in diverse fields, from athletics to creativity to business to medicine.

Finally, decades of research on motivation and burnout shows that striving toward a goal is most sustainable and fulfilling when your drive comes from deep within. Not from the need—or for some, the addiction, and a hard one to shake—to receive external validation.

What Ancient Wisdom Has to Say

Nearly all of the world’s ancient wisdom traditions emphasize the importance of cultivating groundedness. Once practitioners develop this refuge—an intimate sense of strength and stability, of deep and heartfelt self-confidence, of belonging to themselves—they are less prone to getting caught up in fleeting desires or becoming overwhelmed by the daily challenges of life.

Buddhism, Stoicism, Taoism, and other ancient wisdom traditions have been teaching this lesson for millennia. The Buddha taught that the only place true peace can be found is in our “loving awareness”—or what westerners might call the soul, the part of us that rests underneath all the busyness and content of daily life, our enduring and essential nature that is unfazed by external comings and goings. Buddhism also teaches a concept called “right effort,” which states that when one’s striving is grounded, it leads to more meaningful contribution, satisfaction, and fulfillment. The Stoics believed that in order to have a good life, we must shift from trying to attain status or the approval of others, both of which are fleeting, and focus on becoming “properly grounded,” relinquishing the need to look outside ourselves for satisfaction and fulfillment and instead finding it within. The well-known Taoist philosopher Lao-tzu taught that the wind of the world ebbs and flows, but if you learn to hold your ground you can maintain balance regardless of what is happening around you. The fourth-century Christian theologian Saint Augustine acknowledged the human propensity to crave worldly achievements, but, foreshadowing the arrival fallacy, he warned that if you become a slave to outward ambition you’ll be forever dissatisfied, always chasing the next best thing, always getting caught up in the ephemeral and fleeting, always looking for love in all the wrong places. Later on, the thirteenth-century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart’s teachings focused on developing an unshakable groundedness out of which authentic actions arise. “Interiority turns into effective action and effective action leads back to interiority and we become used to acting without any compulsion,” Eckhart said. “The deeper and lower the ground, the higher and more immeasurable is the elevation and the height.”

The recurring theme is clear: if you want to do well and be well in an enduring manner, you need to be grounded. What’s interesting, and something I’ll discuss more in later chapters, is that not one of these ancient wisdom traditions promotes passivity. They all promote wise action. Wise action is very different from our default mode of reaction. Whereas reaction is rushed and rash, wise action is grounded and considerate. Wise action emerges from internal strength, from groundedness.

What Modern Practitioners of Groundedness Have to Teach Us

When I looked at the world’s best and most fulfilled performers I found that they, too, focus on nurturing their groundedness. Consider the Dark Horse Project, a long-term study out of Harvard University that explores how men and women across diverse and often unusual fields—from musicians to dog trainers to writers to sommeliers to hot-air balloon pilots—develop unique processes to achieve their own, personal versions of peak performance, and more important, fulfillment and life satisfaction. The findings, which were published in the book Dark Horse, written by human-development researcher Todd Rose and neuroscientist Ogi Ogas, center around two major themes followed by people who chart untraditional paths to good lives: these “dark horses” focus on accomplishing the things that matter most to them, and they don’t compare themselves to others or to conventional definitions of success.

“The first thing is actually knowing yourself,” says Rose. “For most of us, when we think about who we are, we often talk about what we are good at or the job we do. . . . And what we found in dark horses is that they focus incredibly on what matters to them and what motivates them, and use that as a basis for their identity. And I think that when you anchor around what truly motivates you, that is getting you on the path of fulfillment.”

It can also be instructive to study the experiences of other world-class performers who suffered from distress, saw their performance plummet, but then bounced back. These include people like two-time Olympian and endurance athlete Sarah True, musician Sara Bareilles, basketball stars Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan, Full House actress Andrea Barber, and trailblazing scientist Steven Hayes. As you’ll read in the coming pages, they all struggled with periods of heroic individualism and related burnout, anxiety, and depression. Their lows had at least one thing in common: they tended to follow periods of getting overly caught up in striving and chasing after conventional success. It was only when they returned to nurturing their groundedness that they felt better—and began performing better, too.

The Principles of Groundedness

A guiding tenet in my work—both as a writer and as a coach—is pattern recognition. I’m not interested in “hacks,” quick fixes, or single small studies, all of which tend to be big on promises but low on real-world efficacy. Regardless of what the marketers, clickbait headlines, and pseudoscience evangelists say, there are no magic lotions, potions, or pills when it comes to deep happiness, lasting well-being, and enduring performance.

What I am interested in is convergence. If multiple fields of scientific inquiry, the world’s major wisdom traditions, and the practices of highly fulfilled peak performers all point toward the same truths, then they are probably worth paying attention to. In this instance, happiness, fulfillment, well-being, and sustainable performance arise when you concentrate on being present in the process of living instead of obsessing over outcomes, and foremost when you’re firmly grounded wherever you are.

The remainder of this book is my attempt to figure out how to live this truth. First, I will unpack the essential, evidence-based principles of groundedness where there is clear convergence between modern science, ancient wisdom, and the experience of happy, healthy, high-performing people. Out of a commitment to these principles—acceptance, presence, patience, vulnerability, deep community, and movement—comes a firm and resolute groundedness. Briefly, the six principles of groundedness are as follows:

  • Accept Where You Are to Get You Where You Want to Go. Seeing clearly, accepting, and starting where you are. Not where you want to be. Not where you think you should be. But where you are.
  • Be Present so You Can Own Your Attention and Energy. Being present, both physically and mentally, for what is in front of you. Spending more time fully in this life, not in thoughts about the past or future.
  • Be Patient and You’ll Get There Faster. Giving things time and space to unfold. Not trying to escape life by moving at warp speed. Not expecting instant results and then quitting when they don’t occur. Shifting from being a seeker to a practitioner. Staying on the path instead of constantly veering off.
  • Embrace Vulnerability to Develop Genuine Strength and Confidence. Showing up authentically. Being real with yourself and with others. Eliminating the cognitive dissonance between your workplace self, your online self, and your actual self so that you can know and trust your true self, and in turn gain the freedom and confidence to devote your energy to what matters most.
  • Build Deep Community. Nurturing genuine connection and belonging. Prioritizing not just productivity, but people, too. Immersing yourself in supportive spaces that will hold and support you through ups and downs, and that will give you the chance to do the same for others.
  • Move Your Body to Ground Your Mind. Regularly moving your body so that you fully inhabit it, connect it to your mind, and as a result become more situated wherever you are.

For each principle, we’ll explore the wide-ranging, cross-discipline support behind it. We’ll see how all these principles support one another, like the roots that hold a towering redwood tree to the ground. We’ll also examine an interesting paradox: why letting go of—or at least holding more lightly—outcomes such as happiness and achievement and instead focusing on building a durable foundation of groundedness is the surest path to becoming happier and more successful.

Closing the Knowing-Doing Gap

While the concepts and ideas in this book ought to have a positive impact on your mindset, you will realize their full power only when you apply them. This is why you’ll not only learn about the principles of groundedness but also find concrete and evidence-based practices for taking them off these pages and making them real. In my work with coaching clients, I call this the knowing-doing gap. First, you need to understand something and be convinced of its value. Then, you actually need to do it.

It is worth recognizing, however, that the principles of groundedness don’t just go against societal norms, but they may also go against your personal habit energy, your past ways of being and doing. Though you may sense that many of your habitual ways are counterproductive, you may still struggle to change them. This is normal. Change is a challenge. The inertia of what you’ve always been doing is real—and it can be quite strong. As you’ll see throughout this book, living a grounded life is an ongoing practice. Staying on the path, getting back on when you veer off, is as essential as anything.

It’s one thing to understand something intellectually. It’s another to make it real, day in and day out. As the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh says, “If you want to garden, you have to bend down and touch the soil. Gardening is a practice. Not an idea.”

The time to start nourishing a solid and steadfast groundedness is now. We’ll start with the first principle, learning what it means to accept where you are and seeing why it’s the key to getting where you want to go…

Thank you for reading this excerpt from the introduction of The Practice of GroundednessYou can purchase a copy from Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, Bookshop.org, or wherever else books are sold.

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